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Archive for Friday, July 26, 2002

Bush needs help with media

July 26, 2002


During his years in top public posts, the aristocratic and reserved Lloyd M. Bentsen Jr. was hardly the epitome of the back-slapping, gregarious politician.

But he understood the need to cultivate good ties with the press and had the good sense to hire a one-time El Paso disc jockey named Jack DeVore.

A serious practitioner of the public relations art beneath a gruff, sometimes profane manner, the longtime aide who died last week never lost sight of the fact that, while he was there to help reporters cover his boss, he worked for Bentsen. But he did it in a way that reporters got what they needed and felt he had been fair.

In contrast with Bentsen, George W. Bush should be a press agent's dream. Congenial and engaging, his natural warmth has enabled him to charm voters and disarm reporters. It certainly helped him gain the White House.

But underneath a sunny exterior, the president has a hard-edged disdain for the press and a determination to keep as much from it as possible. That has persisted, whether his chief press adviser was Karen Hughes, his recently departed counselor; Dan Bartlett, his communications director; or Ari Fleischer, his press secretary.

That attitude nearly cost Bush the presidency when a decision to keep secret a 1976 conviction for driving under the influence backfired with a last-minute disclosure that rekindled some doubts in an electorate prepared to overlook them.

It would have had far less impact if it had been disclosed earlier at a time and setting of Bush's choosing.

As president, he has maintained his distance from the press corps, holding few full-length news conferences and confining himself to answering questions tossed to him during photo sessions or in very limited press conferences with foreign visitors.

Since Sept. 11, Bush's public support has been so strong that his attitude toward reporters hasn't mattered much. But the climate is changing, and his most recent press conference showed the potential problems from failing to deal effectively with the press.

The July 8 session was just the third time since Sept. 11 that he has held a full-blown news conference. His stated goal was to prod Congress on its return from the July 4 recess and to preview his speech on corporate responsibility.

Instead, Bush was overwhelmed with questions on his handling a decade earlier of his investment in the Harken Energy Corp. His refusal to release all available information prompted persistent questions.

It's the kind of thing on which White House reporters often become fixated and, therefore, needs to be dealt with as fast as possible. But Bush has been as stubborn in resisting full disclosure as Bill and Hillary Clinton were when questions arose about their ill-fated Whitewater investment.

Besides making him look like he was resisting disclosure, Bush's defensive response seemed to put him in a bad mood. When asked politely by The Dallas Morning News' Bob Hillman about criticism of his civil rights record, he snapped an answer about the prominence of Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, his two most powerful black appointees, before turning quickly to the next questioner.

A few days later, Bush showed why his handlers may be so reluctant to expose him to the press. At a brief press session with the visiting Polish president, he was asked if he was confident that Vice President Dick Cheney would be cleared in a probe of his stewardship of Halliburton Corp.

Though Cheney and his staff have refused to discuss the case while the probe continues, Bush showed no hesitation in proclaiming his confidence that his No. 2 would be cleared.

That drew widespread commentary on the inappropriateness of his pronouncing judgment on a case being probed by his own administration.

More important, it showed again that even presidents need to get, and take, the kind of advice that Lloyd Bentsen got over the years from Jack DeVore.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.

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